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‘Systemic failure’ led to abuses in Holyoke school

Liza Hirsch, who formerly worked at the school, called on leaders to explore best practices for running therapeutic programs.
Liza Hirsch, who formerly worked at the school, called on leaders to explore best practices for running therapeutic programs.(Jim Davis/Globe Staff/File 2015)

Students with behavioral and emotional disabilities at a Holyoke school were physically restrained more than 200 times last year, the result of a “systemic failure” by staff and senior administrators that led to repeated, improper uses of excessive force, according to a state report issued Tuesday.

State investigators found “inadequate oversight and support and an absence of urgency from multiple [Holyoke Public Schools] departments” in addressing the “poor treatment and inadequate educational experience of some students” in the Therapeutic Intervention Program at the Peck School, which serves fourth- through eighth-grade students with special needs.

The state report was issued two months after a nonprofit group, the Disability Law Center, said in its own alarming inquiry that some students at the school were slapped, tackled, and yanked out of chairs for refusing to stand.

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The state report does not address such allegations of overt child abuse, and it does not identify specific administrators or staff who acted inappropriately or failed to act.

The new report, however, provides fresh details about actions at the school during the 2014-15 academic year. Among the physical restraints on students were more than 40 instances of students being held face down on the floor, investigators said. One student was restrained more than 50 times, the report said.

Several uses of restraint were clearly unnecessary, the report said, and alarmed staff members who worried the restraints were “overly physical.” It also said that in some instances parents were not notified that their child had been restrained.

State investigators did note, however, that the school has made “significant progress” during the current school year.

In a joint statement to the Globe on Tuesday, Holyoke Public Schools and the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education said they “will continue to work with the Disability Law Center and other partners to ensure that Peck is a safe and supportive place for students to learn.”

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Stanley J. Eichner, litigation director for the law center, said it would cooperate with the state to monitor the treatment of children at the Peck School. He said he was pleased that early indications are that practices have substantially improved.

“I would commend the department and the district in taking a pretty aggressive series of steps to address what was an outrageous situation,” Eichner said.

He said he expects that some employees of Holyoke Public Schools, which was placed in state receivership last summer following years of poor performance, will be disciplined as a result of the investigation. But he did not know what actions might be taken, or against whom.

A state spokeswoman did not respond to requests for information about possible discipline.

Liza Hirsch, a former Peck School employee who helped set in motion the investigations by sending a seven-page letter of allegations to former superintendent Sergio Paez, praised state and district officials for their investigation. The ongoing changes and the report’s comprehensive plan for training staff, reducing the use of force, and providing strong leadership are steps in the right direction, Hirsch said.

But she criticized the state education agency because, she said, it omitted the most serious accusations made by the Disability Law Center.

“Although DESE’s report does not adequately capture the egregious nature of some of the abuse and mistreatment, the report rightly concludes that the violations were the result of systemic failures,” Hirsch said in a statement. “The response must be equally systemic.”

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She called on district leaders to explore best practices for running therapeutic programs for students with emotional and behavioral disabilities and to carefully review the Individualized Education Program for each student to determine whether the therapeutic program is right for them.

“I am hopeful that the district will take a whole-school approach to establish a culture and climate at Peck and across the district that is inclusive and supportive of all students, including those with emotional disabilities or behavioral challenges,” she said.

Paez, whose offer to lead the Minneapolis schools was rescinded following the release of the law center report, was critical of the state’s investigation.

He said the inquiry should have looked further into the past than just the last school year and should have addressed the state’s long involvement with Holyoke schools and why it had not previously noted issues at the Peck School. During his tenure as superintendent from 2013 to 2015, Paez said, a state official participated with district leaders in weekly visits to each school in Holyoke.

He said the state report did not do enough to acknowledge improvements that already were underway at the Peck School before the allegations came to light, such as introducing a new system for interventions addressing problem behavior.

Paez also asked why state officials conducted the inquiry rather than bringing in an outside investigator.

The investigation was led by Stephen Zrike, who was appointed by the state to lead Holyoke schools. He received support from Russell Johnston, senior associate commissioner at the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, and help from other state and district staff members.

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The investigation found that Peck School staff lacked required training in restraining out-of-control students and that senior administrators failed to respond appropriately to concerns raised by parents about the treatment of the children.

Paraprofessionals and staff responsible for calming unruly children did not receive employee evaluations during the 2014-2015 school year, and those accused of using excessive force against children received “limited discipline,” the investigators found.

“While some internal investigations were completed, they were not comprehensive and did not adequately hold staff accountable for poor judgment and/or misconduct,” they wrote.

Many parents told investigators that they felt pressured to accept their children’s placement in the therapeutic program by threats that school staff would report them to the state Department of Children and Families.

Some families said children were not made to feel comfortable within the program and they were not provided with information about the program or transition plans, investigators said. Parents said school administrators did not take them seriously and did not properly respond to their concerns or questions.

Hampden District Attorney Anthony D. Gulluni announced in December that he would launch a separate investigation into allegations of abuse at the school. The results of that inquiry have not yet been made public.


Jeremy C. Fox can be reached at jeremy.fox@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jeremycfox.

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